The New York Times had to retract his story. This Queen’s professor stands behind him.

“He’s either telling the truth or he’s a sociopath”: The Journal talks to Amar Amarasingam about alleged terrorism hoaxer, Shehroze Chaudhry

The Journal spoke with Amar Amarasingam about his connections to Shehroze Chaudry.
Photo: 
Editors’ note: This story is a reflection of the individual experiences and research of those involved in the matter at hand and should not be used to generalize all forms of Islam or Muslim people.
 
In December 2016, New York Times reporter Rukmini Callimachi travelled to Canada to meet Shehroze Chaudhry, an Oakville, Ontario man who claimed to have been a part of ISIS in Syria in 2014 before returning to Canada. Callimachi, a foreign correspondent who covered Al Qaeda and ISIS at the time, would turn Chaudhry’s story into the award-winning—and later largely retracted—podcast series, Caliphate. But in this moment, as she left Canada, she felt like Chaudhry simply needed someone to talk to.
 
She put him in touch with Mubin Shaikh, a counterterrorism and extremism expert. Shaikh then called Amar Amarasingam, an extremism expert and assistant professor at Queen’s School of Religion, to give Chaudhry more support. Amarasingam first spoke to Chaudhry on Dec. 8, 2016 and told The Journal they’ve been “in touch ever since, on and off.”

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Amarasingam didn’t intend to become an academic specializing in radicalization and terrorism. But after 9/11, which happened in his first year of undergrad, “everything changed.”
 
The tragedy initiated interest in social movements and political violence—particularly “why people come to believe that violence is not only necessary, but […] why they come to see it as an obligation.”
 
Amarsingam studied the Tamil community in Canada and the Sri Lankan diaspora for years and turned to Islamic extremism once the Arab Spring and Syrian civil war began in 2011. He embarked on a seven-year post-doctorate to understand the foreign fighter phenomenon and particularly why people were leaving Canada to fight for ISIS.
 
Amarasingam gradually began focusing on working with former ISIS fighters who had returned to Canada. Interviewing as many former extremists as possible, he asked how they became involved, what they did as members of the extremist groups, and how they left. In doing so, he started noticing patterns. 
 
“Everyone [who enters extremist movements] has a difficult upbringing, in some form or another […] but it’s very difficult to draw a causal link,” he said. 
 
He also noticed trends on the other end of people’s time in extremist groups. “Most people leave out of a kind of moral shock,” he said. “They have a turning point moment. Sometimes it’s that they had kids and didn’t want to teach them neo-Nazi ideology or jihadist ideology. Or they meet a Jewish person who’s very nice and their entire anti-Semitic worldview falls apart.” 
 
However, there remains a lack of clarity regarding the progression from normal life into extremism, making it difficult to design programs aimed at intervention.

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In 2018, Chaudhry—also known as Abu Huzaifa al-Kanadi—began appearing on The New York Times’ podcast series, Caliphate, which was reported and hosted by Callimachi. The podcast became a runaway hit, winning awards that included a Peabody, one of the highest distinctions in broadcast journalism. 
 
Later that year, Chaudhry told the CBC that he had lied about carrying out executions on behalf of ISIS—a core fact the series had centred in its narrative.
 
An uproar in Canada ensued, which included discussion of the matter in the House of Commons. The RCMP began to investigate Chaudhry and charged him with perpetrating a terrorism hoax in September 2020 after finding he had no ties to ISIS. The New York Times performed an internal investigation, causing much of the story to be retracted. Callimachi was reassigned shortly after.
 
Because Amarasingam spent so much time meeting former extremists, his interactions with Chaudhry were similar to other extremists he’d met with. He characterized their relationship as “giving [Chaudhry] someone to talk to” about readjusting to life in Canada. Amarasingam noticed Chaudhry was “still strict in terms of his ideology,” so he put him in touch with some Muslim religious leaders.
 
During the fallout, which was heavily reported on, Amarasingam stayed in touch with Chaudhry. On the day The Journal spoke with him, he had spoken to Chaudhry that morning.
 
“The hoax charge was quite a shock in terms of everything he told me,” Amarasingam said. “He denies it was a hoax.” 
 
However, Amarasingam has not interrogated Chaudhry further about the truth of his claims, as he does not want to be called as a witness in court. 
 
“It took [Chaudhry] a while to realize that it was a serious charge, because they didn’t take him to prison. He was charged with a piece of paper in his car and then [the police] allowed him to go back home, so I think it almost felt like a parking ticket or something to him,” Amarasingam said. “For a couple weeks, he didn’t get a lawyer.”
 
The case has been moving slowly through the courts, and Amarasingam said Chaudhry is “waiting to see what happens.”
 
According to Amarasingam, the case isn’t impacting [Chaudhry’s] day to day life. 
 
“He’s still going to school and work […] but it’s an elephant in the room. He feels bad his parents have to pay expensive legal fees, but because he’s not in prison it’s not registering that this can be a major issue for him.”
 
Amarasingam said one of the reasons Chaudhry may not be taking the charges seriously is because he’s confident the RCMP won’t win the case—a sentiment Amarasingam shares.
 
“I don’t think the RCMP has a good enough case to win,” he said. “The RCMP has to show that he sought media interviews […] all with the express purpose of causing panic to the Canadian public of a future attack […] I think that’s going to be quite hard to prove in court considering how difficult it was to get him to do any media whatsoever.” 
 
Amarasingam noted that Chaudhry reportedly attempted to get Caliphate cancelled before it was published, even offering Callimachi money.
 
Although the RCMP case is not directly about whether Chaudhry was lying or not, much of the attention swirling around the story has asked how much of, or if, what Chaudhry said about his experience in Syria was true.
 
Shaikh, who spoke weekly with Chaudhry, told The Toronto Star in December that he believes Chaudhry never stepped foot in Syria. Amarasingam feels differently. 
 
“There are aspects to the story that he’s probably fudged over time, but I have a sense that why would you make up the entire thing that you even went [to Syria] and then go do media interviews about it.”
 
There are some things, however, that Amarasingam is less sure about. 
 
“[Chaudhry has] admitted a few times, to me and the media, that he lied about the dates [that he was in Syria] initially,” he said. “I think this was strategic on his part to place him before the Islamic State was declared in Syria in late June 2014. So, he kind of made it seem like he went and came back before it got really bad and all the beheadings started.” 
 
Chaudhry later retracted his first set of dates and claimed he was there from November 2014 to March 2015.
 
“It’s not clear whether he lied about the roles he had within [ISIS],” Amarasingam said. “He first said he was part of the police force, and then he said he was in and out very quickly. It’s not clear what he was doing [in Syria].”
 
However, Amarasingam feels he’s seen proof that parts of the story may be real. “[Chaudhry] had very emotional reactions to questions I was asking,” Amarasingam said. “Whenever he talks about the murders that he committed, he gets PTSD-style reactions. He starts shaking. If you just made it up in your head, I don’t know how you have real bodily reactions […] he’s either telling the truth or he’s a sociopath.”
 
Many of these PTSD-like symptoms are common among former extremists. 
“The difference with [Chaudhry] is that he’s still kind of pro-ISIS, in a way, or at least pro-jihadi […] he vacillates in an interesting way between wishing he’d stayed and being happy [he left]. He wants to have both worlds.”
 
Chaudhry’s parents, whom he lives with in Oakville, have not spoken with Amarasingam, but he hears their perspective on the matter through Chaudhry. 
 
“It’s mostly disappointment and anger,” Amarasingam said. “[Chaudhry’s] father often tells the media that his son is just fantasizing, that he made the whole thing up from watching too many YouTube videos.”
 
For now, the case remains quiet, as Chaudhry’s lawyers have told him to not talk to the media. “He won’t be in the public eye until after the case,” Amarasingam said.
 
“He’s almost done school, so he’s going to try and get a job,” Amarasingam said. “Everything is more difficult now that his name is public […] he fought a long time not to have his real name in the public space, and that went out the door with the charge. He’s worried about what that means for employment, or even in relationships and friendships.”
 
Amarasingam is interested to see how the case unfolds, but he sees life for Chaudhry beyond this charge. “He really wants to get married and things like that,” Amarasingam said. “So I think he’ll find his way.”

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